By Rich Rhoades
BROOKVILLE — The Venango Catholic Vikings thought they played pretty good in last year’s trip to Brookville for their District 9 Class A quarterfinal game against Elk County Catholic.
The Vikings lost that one by eight points. Friday night in a return trip to Brookville to play the defending champion Ridgway Elkers, they did much better.
With the exception of a 2-0 deficit to start the game, the Vikings led the rest of the way and sent the Elkers home for the season and claimed their first-ever state playoff berth as a District 9 school in a 52-45 win.
The Vikings’ 6-foot-11 senior Devin Zagar led the way with 17 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots. But he had plenty of help from his teammates as Scott Toy scored 16 points and Brady Kingston had 11 points.
Vikings head coach Ed McIntyre didn’t know when was the last time the program went to states and it’s understandable because it’s been 30 seasons since they’ve done it.
The Vikings, who moved from District 10 to District 9 prior to the 2004-05 season, last went to states as the District 10 Class A champion in 1984, the last of three district titles they’ve won. The Vikings also won district titles and went to states in 1976 and 1978.
So beating the defending champions and getting back to states is a big deal for the scrappy Vikings.
“Ridgway is a great program. They play so hard, so well and disciplined,” McIntyre said. “I’m really happy with our guys. We played with a lot of energy and got the rebounds when we needed to and made stops when we needed to. It’s a big win for the program. The guys played well and I’m proud of them.”
The 16-7 Vikings are guaranteed one of the four Class A state berths since they’re now in the semifinals next week against Cameron County at a site and time to be announced.
Ridgway finished the year 21-4. The Elkers couldn’t make enough shots or stops to catch the Vikings, who made just enough free throws in the fourth quarter — 13 of 23 — to hold off a late Ridgway charge.
“It was about both ends,” Elkers head coach Tony Allegretto said. “They were better than us from start to finish. What you saw wasn’t a fluke and we knew it was going to be a tough game. We didn’t overlook them. We’ve had trouble with height in the middle of the key all year long.”
And that’s where the key to everything started as Zagar’s presence kept the Elkers from getting comfortable. Jeremy Breier and Ben MacDonald scored 17 and 16 points respectively. Breier was 8-for-20 from the field while MacDonald struggled to a 5-for-10 night. The rest of the team was a combined 4-for-14.
“We knew Ridgway has two really good scorers, especially Breier, and we didn’t want to give them open looks and felt if we left Devin around the basket to protect that, that would take away some of their help because we knew they would use back-door cuts,” McIntyre said.
But just as important for the Vikings was to force a faster pace, and get the lead quickly. Scott Toy missed a layup off the opening tip before MacDonald gave the Elkers their only lead with two free throws. But a Brady Kingston 3-pointer at the 6:28 mark put the Vikings up for good.
“We talked a lot since Wednesday that we need to go out and run the floor because we knew they play a slowdown disciplined style where they look for the best shot they can get,” McIntyre said. “We felt if we could go out and score points right away, that’s why we were so disappointed we missed the layup on the tip play … but we still pushed afrer that and hit a couple threes and the guys’ energy was up pretty good after that.”
Venango Catholic went up 10-2 for its largest lead of the game and led 16-10 after the first quarter.
Allegretto pointed to the first quarter as being a big key to the Vikings’ win along with Zagar’s defensive presence in the paint.
“They played man-to-man, but they planted the big guy in the middle and we knew that was going to be a problem,” he said. “We had to make jump shots. Early in the game we didn’t make jump shots and they made everything. We couldn’t stop (Zagar) and get over on him. We tried several different techniques of defending him. They’re good at using him, they’re well-coached on getting the ball to him and they made their shots tonight. In previous games they didn’t. I didn’t see them shoot the ball that well. I knew (Toy) could shoot well and Kingston could go to the basket, but he made those high-arching threes.”
“I thought if we could just get the lead, but we never got to that point. We got to within three and two a couple times, but they kept coming back and made their foul shots and did everything right. They deserved to win.”
“We talked about having discipline on defense and not giving up back-door cuts and I thought overall we did a pretty good job with that,” McIntyre said.
The Vikings led by seven points four times, 19-12 early in the second quarter, 27-20 with 22 seconds left in the first half, 38-31 with 1:17 left in the game and then the final score. Other than that, the game stayed within a 3- to 6-point lead for Venango.
After Toy put the Vikings up 27-20 with 22 seconds left in the first half, Breier hit a buzzer-beater to make it 27-22.
Venango Catholic led 31-29 after three quarters. After Andy Breier’s two free throws got Ridgway within 33-31, Venango went on a mini 5-0 run that gave it a 38-31 advantage. It forced the Elkers to start fouling.
The strategy worked somewhat as the Elkers climbed closer in the final minutes. After Jeremy Breier’s basket got Ridgway within 47-45 with 31 seconds left, Toy hit two big free throws to push the lead back to four points at 49-45 with 26.6 seconds remaining. Ridgway came up empty on the next possession and the Vikings hit three of four free throws the rest of the way to secure the big win.
VENANGO CATHOLIC 52, RIDGWAY 45
Score By Quarters
Venango 16 11 4 21 – 52
Ridgway 10 12 7 16 – 45
Venango Catholic – 52
Devin Zagar 8-14 1-3 17, Scott Toy 3-7 10-14 16, Brady Kingston 3-8 3-4 11, Luke Plumer 0-3 1-4 1, Nathan Dudzik 2-4 0-0 5, Jacob Hargenrader 0-3 2-2 2. Totals: 16-39 17-27 52
Ridgway – 45
Jeremy Breier 8-20 0-0 17, Ben MacDonald 5-20 6-8 16, Josh Lineberger 1-1 1-2 3, Cody Delhunty 0-1 0-0 0, Cory Oknefski 0-1 0-0 0, Andy Breier 0-1 2-2 2, Neil MacDonald 3-5 0-0 6, John Mitchell 0-4 1-2 1, Mitchell Stark 0-1 0-0 0, Nate Steis 0-0 0-0 0, Jack Toncich 0-0 0-0 0, Phil Waddell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 17-54 10-14 45.
3-pointers: Venango Catholic 3 (Kingston 2, Dudzik), Ridgway 1 (J. Breier). Rebounds: Ridgway 34 (J. Breier 7), Venango Catholic 33 (Zagar 9). Turnovers: Venango Catholic 12, Ridgway 10.